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Jennifer Rubin: Nikki Haley has a shot. But a really, really long one

Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley at the Sept. 27 Republican presidential primary debate hosted by Fox News at Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. MUST CREDIT: Melina Mara/The Washington Post  (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
By Jennifer Rubin Washington Post

Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley is having her moment. A recent Des Moines Register-NBC-Mediacom poll put her in a tie for second place (16 percent) with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (whom the GOP would be “shorting” if he were a stock). Right now, her biggest asset appears to be that she is less off-putting than DeSantis.

The never-Trump Republican smart set is singing her praises. The Bulwark’s Mike Murphy wrote, “That preseason winner is Nikki Haley. … (I)n a race against the ghoulish, democracy-loathing madman Donald Trump, it’s an easy call: Go Nikki, go. I’m all in.” She at least has operations in both New Hampshire and Iowa, Murphy argues.

The Daily Beast’s Matt Lewis wrote, “Haley is emerging as the alternative to Donald Trump, at least in part, because she is more likable than DeSantis. She’s a better debater.” Lewis added, “She is, as Pat Buchanan used to say, a better ‘political athlete.’”

As cynical as she might be (e.g., she’d consider pardoning the insurrectionist in chief and four-times indicted former president Donald Trump), she at least has gotten the idea she has to run against Trump to beat him. Hence, she’s criticized his “Hezbollah is smart” hooey, argued that he ran up the deficit and even chastised him for being “weak in the knees” on Ukraine policy. Moreover, she declared at the Republican Jewish Coalition candidate forum, “The stakes couldn’t be higher, and given those stakes, we cannot have four years of chaos, vendettas and drama.”

Her “path” – so slim, it’s more akin to a thread – to victory would go like this: Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., short on money, follows former vice president Mike Pence in exiting the race. In a signal to the “normal” GOP crowd, both endorse her. Haley finishes second in Iowa and/or New Hampshire, chasing out former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and making it impossible (if he is still in the race) for DeSantis to continue. She then gets to be the single alternative to Trump. (There is no sign that Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin or Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp are going to wage a campaign.)

And then? Well, that’s where things get murky, to say the least. Simply being better than all the clumsy, weak, unprepared and obnoxious alternatives still leaves Haley facing the overwhelming favorite of the GOP base. This is not 2016, when Trump could get by with winning 35 percent or so of the early primary electorate to beat back a crowded field. This time, he’s got roughly a 30 percent lead in Iowa in the Des Moines Register poll and about the same in CNN’s South Carolina poll.

What could change between now and then? Trump’s first criminal trial likely will be special counsel Jack Smith’s D.C. case regarding Jan. 6, 2021, set to start on March 4, the day before Super Tuesday. Without a verdict delivered by a jury of his peers, the strength of the evidence against him and his predilection to threaten court personnel and witnesses seem only to have solidified his support in the MAGA cult. And among the GOP voters convinced that he’s a martyr and a victim of the “deep state,” even the potential collapse of his business empire and the revelation that he’s been overstating his wealth for years (according to the summary judgment ruling in the New York civil fraud trial) almost certainly will be discounted.

The electability argument (Americans won’t elect a felon!) probably won’t sway those convinced of his innocence (certainly not before a verdict, when he likely will already have locked up the primary race). The (albeit premature and meaningless) general election polling showing him essentially tied with President Biden won’t help Haley, either.

Haley might roll the dice and make the age/fitness argument against the 77 year-old candidate – one line of attack that has the benefit of truthfulness. (The New York Times has discovered Trump is old and incoherent: “Mr. Trump has had a string of unforced gaffes, garble and general disjointedness that go beyond his usual discursive nature, and that his Republican rivals are pointing to as signs of his declining performance.”)

Hanging over all of this: Generally, true believers dominate the primary race. Haley’s logical, pragmatic arguments will be a tough sell with that crowd. She can rail against “chaos, vendettas and drama,” but those are compliments in the minds of millions of MAGA adherents. And so she is left the likely winner of the race for second place.

The only hope: Near unanimity among saner elected Republicans, donors and party regulars lead them to rally to her candidacy and an influx of non-Trump voters (either independents or anti-MAGA Republicans) tilt the primaries. I find that, well, highly unlikely.

Bottom line: Haley might be the most adept challenger in a weak field, but as long as the MAGA delusion grips the party, she lacks a viable path to win the nomination. Sadly, that leaves the rest of the country at risk of a second Trump term.